Sri Lanka 5: Kaudulla Crazy Right

Crazy Right

Inside the safari car
Inside the safari car

My first safari, and

we hit the trail in the family car.

Crazy, right? Right.

Here’s what I remember:

Late afternoon, sun washing

over Ceylon plains and golden light

spilling through humid treetops

and I rush to buy park passes.

A driveway loaded with jeeps and

one family’s compact SUV because

we thought we’d save some cash.

And five

minutes later we’re bouncing

over chunks missing from the road, ranger

in the back seat squished between our wives.

All cameras ready and darkening

jungle swishing

by the open windows.

Birds call.

We laugh.

Jaliya jerks the wheel

in vain to miss

ruts and pits.  We need

to catch elephants before dark.

Jungle drive by
Jungle drive by

Crazy, right?

Not yet.

Motor over a washed-out incline and under

hornet nest gargantuan and find the jungle

gives way to savannah sweeps of green,

a distant lake sitting lord over fields full

of whistling birds and grazing beasts:

the stout buffaloes, the wild hogs, and

the lazing elephants.

Drive us closer, Jaliya.  Why not?

The sweep
The sweep

A dry creek bed

A gulch, ravine

A tiny family SUV

Crazy, right?

Right.

The ranger shouts in Singhalese

Our nose dips

I turn in time

to see only wide eyes

and flailing hands for handgrips and

I don’t know if

Jaliya was grinning or gasping.

Cameras swing

in a pitch like a squall’s catamaran.

We plunge

we bottom

we climb

and grind the undercarriage.

Shouting now in Singhalese

we rattle and crawl

and can’t stop now or

we’ll get stuck so gun it again and clatter up and

we’re over the gulch

in the family SUV.

the grazing herd
the grazing herd

And elephants graze, placidly in golden glow of a sun set on simmer,

swishing tufts of long grass they pluck with a ropey trunk

left swish right swish left right swish heavy,

heavy eyes and swish left right and stare dark eyes right

into nothing.  A dozen mope along and swish the tufts of grass

then stuff the wadded mass into the triangle jaw.

In the family car,

Sharp words we don’t understand

and no one knows

how bad the car is:

we can’t know can’t

see can’t get

out to check not

till we exit the park.

Ranger fidgets

elephant swish left swish right the giant tufts and stare at us

Crazy right?

Maybe.

The photo op
The photo op

They swish the grass they pluck

to get the dust off it.  Ganga translates

from the back seat.  She’s mad.

The sun grows low and splashes gold

on the bull elephant lumbering toward the family SUV.

Swishrightswishleftswishright.

He eats.

Ranger fidgets.

Jaliya turns to me

“It is very bad.

I’ve torn the bumper apart.”

The bull shoves the mass into mouth

and stares into our cameras. More sharp

words in the sunset as strange birds cry

and words strange to our ears erupt again.

We don’t understand.

He's closing in...
He’s closing in…

The bull is staring still.  Andy squirms and clicks more pictures.

Shouldn’t we leave?

The bull is swishing and staring

and lumbering closer.  Other jeeps—

proper jeeps—hem us in.

They’re blasting as many

snapshots of our bumper

as of the bull swishing and staring.

So close.

Let’s leave

Andy says

she’s closest to the bull

I want to leave

Uh oh. . .
Uh oh. . .

but we can’t because

the other jeeps—

proper jeeps—

have hemmed us in

and the bull swish swishes

and stares still and chews

in his giant gullet.

Dude your bumper

Someone says from a proper jeep

Jaliya just rolls

up the window

“This may be very bad.”

Proper jeep
Proper jeep

The gold slowly goes,

replaced by shade and deeper gray

and elephants fade to the night

and drift to the tree line

and we wait for all

the proper jeeps to leave

our family SUV behind.

The ranger rattles long phrases in Singalese

and there’s nothing left to take pictures of

and soon we’re turning too and creeping

behind the jeeps, the proper jeeps whose

bumpers stay straight and in place.

We roll and pitch and approach the gulch

that tore our litte family SUV.

The ranger speaks more and now

Jaliya translates and Ganga protests

and the gulch

looms in front

and the brakes crunch

and we all jump out

to lighten the back axle.

Damage done
Damage done

And while Jaliya lurches

again across the gulch,

we are a moment alone,

unprotected in the plain

and nothing between me and wild

I breathe all around

in the quickening dark—

the thick soil set aside for preserving life,

the soil where my kind is a designed stranger,

where primal life running rampant

by design and I stand on the strands

of green blades to be swished and chewed

and given to churning cells in animal bodies

and this is highly illegal—

the ranger has told us

we can’t step outside our machines.

It’s only a moment

but one I can’t stop breathing

Even as Jaliya raises the family

SUV on the far side of the steep gulch

and the ranger is shouting in his strange

words and we scramble to fill the doors

and rumble off over pitching

paths following dust of the jeeps—yes

the proper jeeps—on our way out the park.

We leave a tip for the ranger who seems disappointed

and our journey away, in headlights and sleepy eyes,

is quiet, all too quiet, and all

my mind keeps spinning through

is that moment

alone and surrounded

by nothing and by everything—

the safari of the crazy, right?

The golden herd
The golden herd
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